I ended yesterday with a quotation in which Doctor Glas describes his disgust with the sexual act, wishing rather that copulation were so pure and elegant that it could be performed in church (Glas is not a church-goer), “[o]r in a temple of roses, in the eye of the sun, to the chanting of choirs and a dance of wedding guests.” I know this is an important passage because it contains two of the major structural themes of the novel, roses and the sun. Söderberg does not manage to work in his butterflies, another key theme, but that could be overdoing it.
The novel is about an obsessed man trying to justify an act of murder. The content of Doctor Glas’s diary is mostly his resentments, his theories, and how cyanide pills work, ugly stuff, yet the diary is also full of attempts to describe beauty. He calls a former patient and her husband “scum” for “scolding a waiter,” but follows this with a landscape description as if from a genre painting. “The canal mirrored the greenery on its banks and the blue of the sky,” “bicyclists spun over the bridge,” and so on “[w]hile over my table fluttered two yellow butterflies” (57).
It is useful to remember that Glas is not describing the scene as he sees it, but rather as he remembers or imagines it hours later, late at night, sitting at his writing desk. The day’s entry even ends with an explicit reminder of the fact, that he is “writing this by a flickering candle” (60). What did he really experience; why the curious appearance of the butterflies? “All my thoughts and dreams about Nature are most probably based on impressions drawn from poetry and art” (58).
The butterflies and their cousins recur. A “little fragile grey night-moth” (97) is killed by the flame of his lamp on the night Glas concludes that he might – not will, but might – murder his hated rival Gregorius. In the earlier passage, Glas specifies that he is writing by candlelight because “I detest touching oil-lamps,” while in the later scene, Glas touches the oil-lamp “automatically, almost without being aware of it”, a sign of his moral and mental degradation.
The book is quite rich with connective imagery like this, most of it again being related to the sun and clouds and weather, an elaborate expression of the pathetic fallacy where nothing Glas actually describes can really be trusted because what he is actually describing is his own state of mind, at least until this storm near the end of the novel:
The clouds took on the shapes of dirty red devils blowing horns and whistling and screeching in wild pursuit as they whipped the rags off each other’s bodies in all sorts of whoredom. And as I sat there I suddenly burst out laughing: I laughed at the storm... I was thinking of myself and my affairs; therefore I fancied the storm did the same. (126)
A reminder of the scene with the moth appears on the next page. Also some roses. Also a peculiar passage about his mother, the part of the novel that most puzzles me. But at this point Glas has perhaps freed himself from his need to search for correspondences between himself and the external world. He has made the world more pure, more beautiful. He has prepared himself for his own death.
Whatever I was expecting based on all the reviews of Doctor Glas that I had read, it was not an argument about the nature and possibility of beauty. I was not expecting so much about aesthetics.